Lifespan

By Sarah Ryan

I just finished watching, “Life According to Sam.” This documentary follows a young man living with progeria, and his family. Both of his parents are physicians, and his mother has made it her life’s calling to find a cure for the disease, which causes rapid aging in children. Despite the horrific nature of progeria, there is more beauty in this film than I can convey here.

I am so inspired by their journey as a family.

What does progeria have to do with bipolar? There is, of course, no direct scientific correlation but we can learn a great deal from Sam, and his remarkable parents. They are people who engage fully with the world, and each other, despite a dire diagnosis being in play. We should all take a note and consider our presence as we navigate our lives.

Progeria, and bipolar, both present the potential for a shortened lifespan although through very different mechanisms of action. Also, both groups of people need heroes, who tirelessly research treatments, or dare to say the word “cure”.

It is well documented that anti-psychotic medication can knock one, even two, decades (or more) off of your life. See this article: “Science Isn’t Golden”.

This is causing me to ponder the quality vs. quantity question. What are my goals with this life? Is it time? Is it joy? Is it stability? Hopefully, it is a careful mix of all these ingredients.

I believe strongly in the notion that my children, and husband, need me to be at my absolute best. They need that today, here, and now. So, while I contemplate this issue from that regard, I am quite satisfied to accept the risks at hand, and swallow my small blue pill each and every morning.

I feel great, and I am what they need, right now. That means everything to me.

I am of course pondering the question, “Is there a better way?” Surely my kids will need me to help with my potential grandchildren, and my husband and I have dreams of travel and disco-ball parties in our senior years. What will life be like for them if I’m not there?

I am not scared by my own mortality. I am scared of leaving them in any pain, or with a longing for my support, and company.

Sam’s life was full of quality, and he was simply dealt a raw hand when it came to quantity. I was moved with sadness to learn that he died four days ago. His own mother added years to his short life, through her tireless efforts as a researcher and clinician. A mother’s love can move mountains after all and surely we don’t need science to confirm that.

It begs the question, who are our research heroes in the bipolar community? I simply don’t know the answer to this, although there may be many out there, with less public stories of their work. Can anyone enlighten me?

Choosing treatment options is such a balancing act, with so many diseases. Chemo will take you to the brink of death (in some cases), but it can also offer a chance for life. My psychiatric medications have brought me peace, and made it more possible for me to be a good parent, partner, and friend. The quality of my existence has improved beyond measure, but is the payoff a shorter time to share it with those I love?

Before I had been stable for a long period of time, I simply yearned for the peace I now revel in. I would have accepted permanent disability if it meant quiet in my mind, and happiness in my soul. But so much has changed between now, and then, and it wasn’t only medication, which caused that transformation. It played an important role, but so did therapy, life choices, rules, education, and self-determination. So where do I stand now on this issue? I guess the truthful answer is, I need to do more research.

I would never make a medication adjustment without careful consideration, over several weeks, and with the guidance of my doctor, and deliberation with my husband. It should be said that withdrawal from these medications can cause a crisis (physical and/or psychological), and it should not be done on a whim, or without proper supervision!

I have more questions in this article than answers. I plan on speaking with my psychiatrist further about my specific drug cocktail and evaluating my tolerance for risk vs. reward more thoroughly. I need more information. Perhaps you are the same.

As I ponder this question, about the quality of my life (which is wonderful at present), versus the perceived number of years I have left to live it (who knows), I’ll leave you with a story…

I wrote a letter to Sam’s parents over email, expressing my gratitude for the film, and my heart-felt condolences. I hit the send button, as one does, and seconds later I heard a noise outside my window. I went outside to see what it was, and much to my surprise it was my son’s missing rabbit, Hopper. He escaped into the wild many days ago, and we presumed he was gone forever. My son has been grieving the loss heavily. I called the rabbit by name, and he ran directly into my arms, unharmed. I have no explanation for this gift, but I’d like to think it was in some way connected to Sam.

Adorable rabbit isolated on white



Mad Parenthood: In Conclusion

By Sarah Ryan

In this series, we have been introduced to this heavy topic. We have covered how to support ourselves, and our children, while we face psychiatric challenges. And now, in conclusion, I would like to address the following:

What I blame bipolar for as a parent:

Nothing.

Being a parent was very much my choice, and I took on that responsibility without any caveats. Being bipolar wasn’t my choice, but it doesn’t make my children’s needs any different. Clearly, being a parent with psychiatric challenges, doesn’t make things simple, or easy, by any stretch of the imagination but it doesn’t change the facts.

My kids need a stable, loving, fun, and engaged Mom, and that’s what they have today. I’m not perfect – not by a mile. But I can say with all honesty that I’m doing everything I can think of to try and support my family, and myself. I work at it everyday. In return, I get to see them grow, thrive, and fill me up with their love and goodness. It fuels me to stay well, and on-top of whatever ugliness bipolar tries to throw my way.

If I were a diabetic, I wouldn’t leave the house without my testing meter, and insulin. Well I have bipolar instead, but I consider it similarly.

I get to see my children belly-laugh, learn new skills, and wonder at the marvels of the world around them. What greater gift is there than that? I can’t think of a single thing. There’s nothing besides the love of my family that I would fight this hard for.

Likewise, if it is needed, I’ll remove myself (temporarily) for proper treatment should it come to that. I won’t subject them to any extreme states – I believe it is entirely possible to commit to this notion. It is my responsibility to put into place systems for dealing with a potential crisis. It is my responsibility to be self-aware of my progress, and to ask others to keep a guarded eye on me. It is my responsibility to address bipolar head on, and not make it my children’s burden.

If you think mental illness disqualifies you from parenthood, I say think again. You just have to be willing, and committed, to going the extra mile to ensure you are exactly what they require, and deserve, as often as humanly possible. I believe in the power of the human spirit and the power of parental love, to overcome adversity. It simply requires dedicated effort and the right support systems in place. We can raise a more self-aware and healthy generation of young people, and we can have an incredible amount of fun doing it.

Wherever you find yourself in your parenting career, I hope we all remain open to change and evolution. No one is ever done learning, or developing. There are always things we can improve upon, but remaining open to that possibility is what makes it all possible. I hope you other parents out there, hug your children tonight, and fill their ears with silly thoughts.

Life with kids is joy incarnate. I wish you all a house full of love and happiness.



Mad Parenthood: What Works For Kids

By Sarah Ryan

Now we have covered how to support ourselves in parenthood in the previous article. But how can we support our children directly, while facing our own mental health challenges? Here are some of the tactics that have really worked for me thus far. I am certain there is much I can still learn, without question, and I hope this list grows over time as I do.

How To Support The Kids:

  • Join a mother’s group when they’re infants

Enduring the rigors of the first days and months of parenthood can challenge even a seasoned veteran. Couple this fact with sleep deprivation, and a mental health issue, and things can quickly become more complicated. Staying connected and finding peers during this time can be really helpful. You may find it of benefit to compare notes with other new mothers and fathers, to determine if you’re having a significantly harder time coping than they are. At the very least, you might figure out a way to get out of the house faster or to calm a crying infant using hand puppets. Sunshine and play dates are often good for the whole family.

  • Join a Co-Op when they’re of preschool age

I touched on this in my previous article, because a cooperative nursery school experience was astonishingly positive for my entire family. The community we built through that process supported our children’s development, and our parenting, in a brilliant manner. I would highly recommend being involved with their preschool experience as much as is possible for you. Being connected to a community in anyway is a powerful and therapeutic action in itself.

  • Be involved in their classroom when they’re in grade school and beyond

By knowing how your children are integrating into their school classrooms you’ll likely get an idea of how well they are doing overall. If a child is wracked with anxiety, for example, it’s possible that they need additional services. Your involvement demonstrates to your child that you’re invested in what their doing. Likewise, a regular homework routine can offer you both some relaxed bonding time, while giving you cues about their academic progress.

  • Maintain a routine

People with mental health issues, and children, can both benefit from knowing what is expected of them during each day. Removing as many surprises as possible allows for a more relaxed and manageable day for everyone. You might consider making your kids visual calendars. When my kids were smaller I had a schedule for each day for them to examine. It’s all about stress reduction, and simplicity, for the sake of the whole family.

  • Check-in with teachers, physicians, and care-givers regularly

Most of us aren’t trained experts in medicine, teaching, or child development. Given that, it’s probably best to confer with the professionals about your child’s progress. You want to make certain that they are getting all the support they need in a variety of areas. Knowing they are on track developmentally allows you to use your energy where it is needed, by engaging with your kids, and taking care of yourself.

  • Do fun activities together, and separately

Activity times can strengthen your bond, there’s no question of it. They show your child a level of engagement that builds confidence. Likewise, activities that are independent of you can offer some respite time for mothers and fathers to recuperate. There’s a great big world out there, and so much to discover, both together, and independently. Just don’t over commit your schedule, or take on anything too grandiose (I should take my own advice here).

  • Don’t over burden them with adult problems

I’ve spoken with a great number of people about how much to share with your kids about bipolar, or on the contrary, what to shield them from. I find this to be a very age-specific conversation and plan on making this topic non-taboo in our household when the time does come. That time is not now, for us. I have personally chosen to only share the fact that I take medication with them, as they are still far too young to have a more in depth conversation (they simply saw me doing this, which prompted a conversation). I see having an in depth conversation with them as serving no purpose at this juncture except perhaps to alarm them. At times when I haven’t been feeling my best, I simply removed myself from their line of sight, or called in the backup squad to help me. I feel it’s my duty to shield them from any notion that I am in danger, or unreliable. Of course, everyone handles this differently, which I respect. I guess I would ask myself, what is the motivation for explaining bipolar to a young child in any detail?  I would confer with your psychiatrist about how to approach this topic if you feel the need to do so. Obviously older kids need to be educated about what signs and symptoms to look out for, when it comes to their own health, as bipolar is correlated with a genetic factor.

  • Keep children away from medications

This is a no-brainer. Just as we keep children away from hot stoves, you should also have a locked cabinet for your medications, if you take any. Actually, the only fact my kids know about my bipolar, is that I take medication. They have no earthly idea why. My older child did ask me about it one day, and I simply told him, “My body needs some medicine to be healthy. I have to take this everyday, but then I feel great. If you were to swallow my pills though you would be very, very sick – so please, don’t ever touch it, ok?” This was enough of an explanation to satisfy the curiosity, but it also helps me teach them to think for themselves and avoid life-threatening situations. Still, as I said, I don’t tempt fate, and keep everything out of reach in a locked cabinet.

  • Teach them to identify emotions + express them

It’s so powerful to teach a kid to identify how they feel. Ask them questions. Teach them names for frustration, anger, happiness, disappointment, and beyond. This will serve them well throughout their lives, and help them develop self-awareness. Self-awareness of your mental state is the most powerful behavioral cognitive skill you can have, when fighting something like bipolar. I’ve tried to teach my two children some ways to calm themselves also, and to express how they feel in a constructive way (e.g. without throwing things or screaming). This is a challenging skill for many people to master, so be patient. It’s a life-long process.

  • Tech them how to keep themselves physically healthy, and later, mentally fit

I think most people try to keep their kids healthy, in a general sense. We are laying the foundation here with information about the basics of good food, exercise, proper sleep habits, and hygiene. But in the future, when they are older, I hope to build on this by making the leap towards taking care of their mental health. It’s all about stepping-stones.

  • Model the behaviors you want them to possess

If you want your children to communicate with kind words, and reasonable reactions to stress, you need to demonstrate how to do that yourself. They are always watching! We need to be very careful how we present ourselves, as people who gravitate towards extreme emotional states. This is a massive challenge, no doubt, but it’s always in the back of my mind. Think before you speak.

  • Be willing to say you’re sorry

I have never met a perfect parent, let alone a perfect person. If I over-react or realize I had a poor approach to a situation, I am the first to offer an apology to my kids. It’s about respect. I don’t have to beg for forgiveness on bended knee, but I do feel like it’s ok to say, “I was thinking about… and I wish I had done…instead. I’m sorry about that,  but I think I understand things better now.”

  • Remind them (too often) how loved and safe they are

This is the easiest, and potentially the most powerful item you have in your parenting tool belt.  Tell them everyday, how much you care. Love needs to be expressed, and children are especially prone to being aware of how safe they feel. Telling a child you love them only reinforces the notion of security, and belonging, in this big confusing world. No matter what happens, I end each and everyday with an “I love you.”

Up next, and in conclusion: What I blame bipolar for, with regards to parenting.



Mad Parenthood: What Works

By Sarah Ryan

dock

The first article in this series, can be found here.

 

When I was initially diagnosed, this is how I saw the situation, and I was petrified:

Parenthood + Bipolar = Me Being A Lousy Parent

As if the challenge of raising human beings wasn’t enough, I also had to face my own shortcomings, and I was pale at the thought of the damage I could bestow upon my most precious gifts, if I didn’t take control of the situation. It didn’t happen overnight, but with support from my husband, family, and physician, I can now say that I am more stable and happy than I can recall. Surely, my kids are benefiting as a result.

I can tell you now that the above equation probably doesn’t work, nor can it ever be so simple. So, what does work? I think my actual approach to parenthood, post diagnosis, has looked a lot more like this:

Physician + Family + Friends + Community Involvement + Therapy + Medication + Self-Determination + Rules For Living + Routine + Self-Awareness + Patience + Parent Education + (Love (x infinity)) = Parenthood/2 = Me – Bipolar = Happy Family

Complicated? Yes, but, in reality parenthood is complicated and requires a multifaceted approach. I have also found the need for an awful lot of self-discipline, and education as well, and I can’t really stress these points enough. No one instinctual knows all the intricacies of parenthood. It’s a skill that is very much learned. Likewise, the phrase “it takes a village” really applies to being a mad-mom, in my humble opinion.

Instead of describing the many challenges we all face as mothers and fathers, regardless of psychological diagnosis, I’d rather dive straight into what I have found to be immensely helpful, in my quest to be a purposeful parent.  We have to take care of ourselves, if we intend on being top-notch care providers for our kids. That is critical point, which cannot be overlooked.

How I Support Myself:

  • Join a cooperative preschool

This was the single best thing that I was ever involved in during my kids’ preschool years. Cooperative preschools are usually geared towards parent education. I learned more here about being a good mother than in any book I’ve ever read. Also, I had other parents, and a gifted set of teachers, to keep an eye on things. They were as much a support to me, as they were to my two offspring. I am deeply grateful for the connections that were made there, and for all the lessons, painful or joyous, easy, or difficult to grasp. I’d recommend you check out your neighborhood co-op. They are usually a more affordable option also when compared to drop-off style preschools and much more supportive of the family as a whole.

  • Go to therapy for eternity

This is just what it sounds like. Parents need guidance, and this is especially true if you have a mental health diagnosis. Keep going. Find a therapist that fits your style and don’t stop, because you’re never done being a parent, or growing as a human being.

  • Get a life-coach (if you can afford it)

I wish this was covered by insurance, but it generally isn’t. How do you balance it all? What are your personal goals? What makes you happy and feel connected to the world around you? A life coach can help you make an actual plan to achieve what you want in life, and answer some of those questions. That will make you a happier person, and therefore a better parent. It’s completely different than therapy, but not a substitute.

  • Remove stress where possible

This is easier said than done obviously. If there are ways to minimize your environmental stress, like making good financial choices (following a budget), or getting a housekeeper, then go for it. We all have different resources here, but asking for help from loved ones is sometimes an option to consider.

  • Maintain a routine

Day in, and day out, a routine will give you a sense of order and rhythm. It’s so important for people who are easily swayed into high-energy or depressive modes of being and your kids will feel secure in an established routine also.

  • Follow the rules to live by

See my article here for the bullet list: http://blogs.psychcentral.com/bipolar-unbroken/2014/01/why-2014-will-be-a-better-year/

  • Check-in with friends and spouses regularly

I often ask my trusted friends, and husband, how they think I’m doing. I’ve also openly invited them all to make it known if they feel like trouble is brewing. Sometimes it’s very hard to hear, and no one appreciates the need for an eye over your shoulder, but I’ve come to realize it’s important and I need to swallow my ego and listen with open ears.

  • Take breaks / don’t over commit

For me, this means keeping my scheduled activities at a reasonable level. I don’t plan too much, and I don’t allow myself to be a shut in. I also might take some time to myself in the evening, after my husband gets home, if I need to recharge. If I feel overwhelmed with the chaos in the house during the day, I might take 2 minutes to pause, and collect my thoughts, before I respond to the situation. Slow, and steady, wins the race.

  • Connect with others who have bipolar

I have found this to be important. By relating to others who share your condition you can lessen the sensation of isolation. You can also learn a thing or two from connecting with people who share your condition. You’re not alone. There are an estimated 6 million people in the U.S. alone who have bipolar.

  • Educate yourself on parenting

Read. Read. Read. No one is a born parent. Parents are made and grown. Ask questions, and get answers.

  • Have outlets / hobbies

You can’t work all day, and never play. It’s not good for you, and it teaches the kids an unhealthy habit also. Just like kids have interests, hopefully you do also. Just keep an eye on things, in case you become too engrossed in your hobbies, which might be a sign of mania.

  • Be physically healthy

You can’t be at your peak mental state, if you’re denying yourself the basics of sleep, good food, rest, and activity. Keep up with your general physician also. The basics are critical to well being for all people.

  • Be grateful, it’s good for you

I have a friend who once told me, “Everyone, has something.” It’s true. In our lives, everyone will have a medical issue.  It can’t be escaped. You have bipolar, yes, but you’re also alive and life is full of possibilities! There is so much to be grateful for, and if you’re a parent, you have a very, very good reason for gratitude already.

  • Have a back-up plan if it all goes south

I can’t stress this enough. If all else fails, the children need to be cared for, regardless of where you are in your state of recovery. Who will take care of them if you need to be hospitalized? If you cannot provide for them on a basic level, you need to contact help immediately. The children deserve care and if you are unable, even if it tears your heart out you, you need to address this and call in back-up. Temporary separation might be the best thing for them, and you. Kids first. That’s the rule. Even if you are feeling great, have a plan. It’s just part of being a responsible parent.

  • Never, and I mean never, consider giving up

If you remove the option of surrender from your mind, then the idea of perpetually addressing bipolar will become second nature. It ceases to be a chore after a time, and becomes simply, your way of life. Your kids need you for a lifetime.

In an ideal world we all have access to the support we need, and all the resources possibly available. I, sadly, understand this isn’t true for everyone. Make the best of what you have, and ask your doctor about possible access to what you’re missing. They might have some great community programs that are within your grasp. I hope some of these tips are helpful for you all. If you have more ideas, I would be most grateful to hear them.

Up next: How I support the kids

Mother and children image available from Shutterstock.



Mad Parenthood: A Series

By Sarah Ryan

This is a scary topic. There is no getting around it.

I’ve been gnawing on how to approach this for quite sometime, because I fear the possible repercussions of being an “out-there” parent with a diagnosed psychiatric disorder. Will I be seen as an unfit parent, or worse, will my children be affected by my public speaking? I don’t really know the answer. I only have my truth to hang on to, and my hope to make things easier for others out there who are suffering. Likewise, I want to help promote a world that is accepting of personal differences and unique minds. I want that for my kids.

After a lot of though, I’ve come to the same point I always do. Honesty is the only approach that has any impact, and any hope of raising awareness.

So, here it goes.

mother hands holding small baby's feet

There are three events that have occurred in my life for which I am most grateful. They are my marriage to my husband, the birth of my son, and the birth of my daughter. I can say quickly and without hesitation that these three choices created more happiness than I could have ever fathomed. There’s no way to prepare for that kind of enduring, deepening love. And, it just keeps on growing with time. It’s more beautiful than I am able to verbalize.

I tell my children every night before they go to sleep, “I love you more than the moon and stars. I love you more than everything.” It’s our little ritual, and really, the words aren’t strong enough. I simply don’t know how else to tell these small people who live in my house, any more emphatically, how much I care about them.

Even with all the love in the world, parenthood is a challenge.

I have never met another parent (mad or “sane”) who thought it was easy, or a perpetually smooth road. But I’m unique, and I know it. If you add into the mix some interesting thought processes and bouts with depression, well things get more complicated in an instant. I wish I could sit here and compose a piece about my parenting perfections, but that would be a farce and no good to anyone.

There have been stretches of time when I haven’t been the best version of myself. I wasn’t the pillar of stability that I wanted to be for my small sidekicks, or my dear husband. That’s extremely challenging to admit because there is no aspect of living for which I am more devout.

My depressive episodes have affected my family the most. I’m sure of it. That’s the hard truth. Trips to the park become too much to handle. Every ounce of energy I could muster was put into the daily routine, leaving nothing for my wonderful husband. It was at times like running through water, uphill, in the freezing cold.

When I was diagnosed as being bipolar the kids were extremely young (thankfully). I breathe a sigh of relief for this fact alone. But having them at all is what prompted me to consider how I moved through the world, and what sort of an example I was offering them.

I recall a moment shortly after my diagnosis where I saw them playing in our compact living room. I looked at them, hard. A bizarre tactile conviction passed over me, like nothing I’ve ever felt. It was visceral, and profoundly consuming. I thought to myself, “I will take control of this, for you.” I have not stopped fighting to improve and maintain ever since, and that was many years ago.

The one gift I took away from diagnosis was the notion that I was imperfect. Yes, I realize that sounds bizarre, but this concept of being flawed helped me awaken to a state of openness. I finally had a construct that explained a lot of my early twenties, my behavior (which I had previously thought was simply personality driven), and oppressive elements that were not of my choosing like biology at play. I accepted I was broken, and it gave me the chance to evolve. I figured, if I had this “thing” to contend with, why not examine my whole self, and see just how much I could transform into the person I wanted to be for my family.

It was an opportunity.

I feel like anything is possible when you are open to looking at things objectively, even if it hurts. When you can’t be objective, get someone involved who is – namely a good psychiatrist, family, friends, and your community. Support is critical. You can not go it alone, and a long-term strategy is in order.

I was, and am, willing to walk through broken glass in order to be the most stable, loving, and in-tuned parent (and partner) I can be.  It’s my reason for every doctor’s appointment, every pill I swallow, every choice I make, and action I commit to.

I’ve got to say also, that as a result, my family is thriving. There is so much love in this house. The kids are developing into these beautiful, caring, silly creatures and I couldn’t be more proud of them. My husband is a rock deserving of some sort of award. Maybe I’ll fly a sign behind a plane someday so everyone knows the kind of man he is, and has been.

So, how did we get here, to this marvelous point?

Well, this topic is too sprawling to discuss in one post. Next article: what tactics have worked for me, as a mad-parent. In the mean time, please remember, every time you fall down, you have the chance to get back up and decide which direction your feet will take you.



Why 2014 Will Be A Better Year

By Sarah Ryan

rope2013 has come to a close.

I’ve spent the first day of 2014, in part, reflecting on the past 365 days – all the opportunities, the challenges, the heartaches, and the joys. It was truly a blood, sweat, and tears kind of year. There were great rewards ultimately, but this year also forced some personal growth that was simply painful and all consuming. Still, I am grateful to have endured it. Through it all, I held onto this safety rope. I held on until my hands bled. I’ve been holding on for years, and years, and years.

The rope has been my guide. It has led me to the next inevitable day, propelling me forward into the future, where things are consistently hazy, shrouded in fog and uncertainty. I have followed the rope knowing that I will face whatever it leads me to.

But, what if I just let go this year?

What if I stop following the rope, and stop all that growling back in the face of adversity? What if follow a less ambiguous path? I’m going to create a guidebook for myself instead, with a path of my choosing. I’m going to take into account my strengths, limitations, and desires.

In order to do this, it occurs to me that I need to build off of the guidelines I already employ for living with bipolar. I have learned that I can best manage my unique, and often chaotic mind, by living within a set of self-determined rules.

My (ideal) guidelines for making bipolar manageable:

  • Take my medication before my feet hit the floor in the morning
  • Sleep 7-8 hours a night, no more, no less
  • Eat good food, regularly
  • Get as much sunshine as possible!
  • Exercise
  • Don’t drink alcohol (except champagne toasts!)
  • Make time for introversion – everyday
  • Force time for social connection – everyday
  • Take 5-min breaks for mindful awareness throughout the day
  • Mood chart every evening
  • Consider my emotions before allowing outward reactions
  • Keep appointments with my shrink, and be honest with him
  • Find joy – everyday
  • Find spontaneity – everyday

 

This may sound like a lot to keep track of, or far too altruistic, but it has become second nature to me. If I were diabetic I would check my blood sugar often, and plan my meals at specific intervals, so often in fact that the lifestyle would be purely habitual.

I believe living with bipolar can be seen in the same way. It is a chronic dysfunction that requires adjustments and self-awareness, and brutal honesty – at all times. If I adhere to this pattern, I’ve found that tweaks are more often need versus life-changing overhauls to find peace when things evolve.

My guidelines for living with bipolar might not suit any of you. Perhaps we have some overlap, perhaps not. It doesn’t matter if our methodologies differ, but having a structure that suits you can bring much needed order to the times when your mind feels more fractured than whole.

Perhaps you don’t trust your reactions, or state of energy, on a given day. You can rely on the fact that following some basics will help protect you from poor decision making, the potential for self-inflicted harm, or deepening suffering.

I want to elaborate on this notion of living by “guidelines” for 2014 so I am going to draw a proposed path that leads me towards the following goals:

Notebook with green pencil on wooden table

I want to be the best possible human being I can be, and this means growth on a soulful level, being generous, having sincerity in my voice, and compassion in my heart. I want to continue to be ruled by love, and put my whole self into the protection and incubation of my family. I want to contribute to society as much as I can, but reasonably so, and not to my detriment. I want to be in control of my bipolar disorder. I want to have meaning in my work.

I want to keep growing the hell up.

I am hopeful to continue towards these goals as much as is possible, given the constraints of being an imperfect human, in a mortal and flawed body.  The point is I’m going to create a plan for making it possible, and I’m going to commit to it.

I have found that so many of us, who live with bipolar, are swayed and pushed vigorously by forces derived not only from within, but also externally in our environments. Clearly, events outside our sphere of influence are to be expected. We tend to have inherently sensitive natures, and are easily over-stimulated. I’ve found we internalize the severity of the world around us will alarming ease. We need to protect ourselves.

I hope you all get out a white sheet of paper, a pencil, and devote some time to drawing/writing your guidebook. I hope it comes complete with a potential (reasonable) timeline so you can guide yourself toward mental well-being, physical health, meaningful relationships, inspiring work, or whatever else allows you to experience fulfillment and peace in your life.

There is so much more to your life than bipolar disorder.

Figure out what parameters you need to live by to make certain that this sucking force, called bipolar, remains locked up in a steel bound cage. Set yourself free to live, and live big!

Yep, 2014 is going to be a better year.

Holding on to a rope image available from Shutterstock.



Light Cures Depression

By Sarah Ryan

Office desk

Let There Be Light!

As I make connections with others in the bipolar community, I am consistently gob-smacked by the number of “controversial” treatment options available. This seems to apply to nearly every course of action that is considered common practice.

Some may declare a specific psychotropic medication to be the holy grail of treatment. Yet simultaneously, others will malign the product as a soul-sucking compound designed to lobotomize the user. What information can you really trust? And how do we even begin to address the tactfully withdrawn research, which never even makes it to the peer-review process in the first place? Even published studies can be criticized for their structure.

I began to think about what elements affect me on a daily basis, and are supported by basic biology. What treatment needs do I have, that can’t be denied? My conclusion = sunlight, and controlled sleep.

People with bipolar disorder seem to be universally affected by the amount of  daylight they are exposed to, with regards to mood and energy levels.

I have found that while spending time with my family in cold northern locations (generally Ireland or New England), the draw to sleep at odd hours is profound. My energy levels plummet, and the possibility for creative bursts are infinitesimal. I must be very careful to adjust my schedule so I rise with the morning sun, very early in the day, or else when the 4:30 darkness rolls in, I will be ready for an ill-timed nap (only leading to the dreaded wee-hour insomnia and compounding irritability).

This pattern of existence is quite opposite from my usual Californian routine. My workstation, outside of San Francisco, is situated beside a floor-to-ceiling window, which basks me in sunlight nearly everyday without pause. I often have a terrible time reigning in the resulting energy and inspiration after a day’s worth of writing and research. It’s quite clear to me that this affect can be summarized in the following poorly constructed diagram:

sunlight => energy => creativity => ability => productivity => ‘normal’ fatigue 

Everyone can’t relocate to a climate that is supportive of constant sun exposure. So what else can be done? It was suggested to me, when I was residing in the dense fog of San Francisco itself, that I employ the use of a full-spectrum light. I was very skeptical of this method. It felt far too simplistic – even gimmicky.

That said, I ordered one, because I am open to trying almost anything that might bully bipolar into the background where it belongs.

I must say that I believe it helped me achieve a better energy-sleep rhythm. If I used it regularly, 45 minutes each morning, I did notice improvement in my energy during the morning hours, and improved ability to sleep at night. It does not compare however to my current set-up, which, includes full workdays soaking in the California sunshine with very little interruption to the flow of cosmic energy.

Perhaps if I were still working in the white-out fog of San Francisco, I would swear by the full-spectrum lamp throughout the day, in the hopes of achieving the same affect. I did read a few very convincing studies on this topic. One I will quote here, and I believe you’ll find the results rather astonishing.

This analysis of randomized, controlled trials suggests that bright light treatment and dawn simulation for seasonal affective disorder and bright light for nonseasonal depression are efficacious, with effect sizes equivalent to those in most antidepressant pharmacotherapy trials.
(Source: http://www.dsm.psychiatryonline.org/article.aspx?articleid=177447&RelatedWidgetArticles=true )

You read that correctly, light therapy can be compared to the potential power of an antidepressant.

In other studies the use of sleep-deprivation coupled with light therapy produced a rapid anti-depressant effect in people with bipolar disorder.

“The combination of total sleep deprivation (TSD) and light therapy (LT) in bipolar depression causes rapid antidepressant effects, and its mechanism of action has been hypothesized to involve the enhancement of all of the monoaminergic systems targeted by antidepressant drugs (serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine)…. Two‐thirds of the patients responded to treatment (50% reduction in Hamilton Depression score).”
(Source: http://informahealthcare.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07420520701649455 )

I can say with great personal certainty that limiting my sleep to 7 hours per night and coupling it with sunlight exposure has dramatically improved my life, overall. I have more prolonged energy throughout the day, and a general feeling of happiness and enthusiasm for my work (and family) commitments.

I’m noticing how the absence of such a light and sleep routine, while on vacation, leads to great dips and spikes in my energy and mood. One would think the excitement of being on vacation would overcompensate for the darkness, fog, and precipitation in the northern climates we tend to frequent. But I am not a typical human being. I have bipolar. As I accept this label to be very fitting,  I shall toast to midnight bedtimes, and morning basking, as a result. It’s profound what a difference these two non-pharmaceutical approaches can make.

I can’t help but ask, why not try sleep deprivation and sunshine, before ECT or other truly controversial treatments? As always, a discussion with you physician is in order before you should adjust anything in your treatment protocol. But perhaps, your doctor will feel this is a cause worthy of further exploration. This tactic provides further proof  that we can take control of this beast called bipolar, sometimes through simple actions.

My advice: Set a bedtime, and an alarm-clock, and I sincerely hope you’re able to find some light, be it artificial or more divine in origin. It will lead to a stronger state of wellness.



Why I Take Medication

By Sarah Ryan

medication_pharmacy

Bipolar is not well defined with regards to causation, despite decades of research. The current theories revolve around the complex interplay between genetic expression, environmental triggers, and biological neuro-transmission. If a holistic approach to healing the patterns of the mind (and how those emotions affect the body) is utilized, it is my opinion that you cannot deny the existence of biological elements at play. It is, however, only a piece of a complicated puzzle.

I cannot determine with any veracity if biology is more responsible than environment or experiential learning, in the causation of bipolar. That said, I will attempt to reflect on my life experiences to address this. Based on this single account (clearly not a wide scientific study), I think biology is largely responsible for bipolar becoming unmanageable.

I’ll explain why.

I have loving parents, supportive siblings, and a husband that adores me (you rock, baby). I have a roof over my head, an education in my pocket, and friends who accept my eccentricities. I have all the gifts in life a person could dream of, in my humble opinion. It isn’t perfect, but it’s all I need and then some. There is no motivation for me to sabotage the beauty of what surrounds me. None. Absolutely none. I appreciate the love and comfort I experience with immense heart-felt gratitude – daily. Surely I have faced tremendous challenges, we all have, but I would not identify as someone who has been dealt a rough hand.

Despite my attachment to my “good life” I have still felt the despair of depression soak into every cell of my body. I have also attempted feats, and taken risks, well beyond my abilities in moments of manic energy. This is counter-intuitive and self-damaging, it goes against the natural tendency to protect that which makes us happy, feel loved, and safe.

So why would someone choose suffering, added complications, and distress for those they love? You wouldn’t if you are in a rational head-space. Environmental triggers are usually absent for me. Biology however remains constant.

Despite my many gifts, and years-long therapeutic efforts, nothing has ever worked to get me out of the dark bowels of depression like serotonin affecting medication. Call them drugs, call them pharmaceuticals, you may call me an addict, or someone who drinks the psychiatry kool-aid, whatever you like is fine by me. The truth is the medications have saved me – and I am grateful. I have attempted (under doctor’s care) to withdraw their use, but relapse was the only result I have ever experienced. It is a sure as the sun rising in the morning.

I can’t be as certain about my anti-manic agent as I haven’t tested this as directly. That said, I haven’t had a bad spell of mania in years and I’m comfortable with my low dose and obvious results.

As for the ever-so-common anxiety that many of us face, well, that’s more complex. I am still fine-tuning my approach to this, but the occasional use of medication offers respite from intense moments. I am far more interested in so-called “alternative” treatments for anxiety, and I am actively learning more about various techniques that are used. I feel I am quite green in this particular area, but I am hoping to hit the learning curve in an exponential fashion. Still, there are times when pharmaceuticals give me time to breathe, reflect, and internalize possible reasons for my anxious tendencies. I can contemplate patterns if given a break from the crushing effects of nervousness.

How can I look at this empirical evidence and deny what is my personal truth? Inner strength, lifestyle choices, family support, and biological alterations have all been required for me to find my version of wellness.

Of course, I don’t think many people are comfortable with the idea of life-long medication. And I sincerely wish I didn’t have a need for it. That said, I am utterly opposed to changing something, which is not broken, just for the sake of being unaltered. I need to be altered. I know what is inevitable if I am not.  A physical disease deserves the same holistic view as a mind-based disorder.

So despite my obvious improvement, found in pharmaceuticals, what other reasons do I have for adhering to my medication schedule religiously?

My family deserves the best possible version of myself that I can offer them, first and foremost. If I am honest they are the reason for every bit of self-care and medication compliance I participate in. They are why I attend all appointments, research like a lunatic about additive therapies, and communicate with others who have my diagnosis. But, ultimately, I don’t deserve to suffer either, and I have. Life is just far more manageable in this way.

I want to be clear that I support anyone who can find satisfaction, living with bipolar, without medication. I need it to be known that I cast no judgment on those who can manage without. I am just well aware that I am not one of those people, and I doubt I ever will be. But, at least for now, I am free of the burdens of bipolar – long may it last.



Bipolar Supporters Need Boundaries

By Sarah Ryan

laptop

Establishing appropriate boundaries is a crucial aspect of living a functional existence. For me, as an activist, hoping to educate and assist people affected by bipolar, boundaries are critical in order to adhere to my mission.

I don’t really have any boundaries established at the moment, however. I’m actually quite pathetic at it.

It has been conveyed to me recently, that I have never developed this skill properly, and I concur with the assessment. When approaching this subject, at first glance, I decided my lack of expertise in this area disqualified me from discussing it. However, I considered it further, and decided that if I only approach topics, which I feel I am well qualified to discuss, then I omit the opportunity to dig deeper into personal flaws and gain insight and connection with others on these subjects.

Therefore, in the spirit of personal growth and honesty, I have elected to describe one of my many shortcomings. My amazing life-coach, related my approach to creating boundaries, to the term “idiot compassion.”

I laughed out loud when she said this.

I did not laugh out of offense, but rather absurdity.  How could anyone be both an idiot and compassionate simultaneously? It didn’t make sense to me in that moment.

Pema Chodron describes this trait in the following way:

Idiot compassion is a great expression, which was actually coined by Trungpa Rinpoche. It refers to something we all do a lot of and call it compassion. In some ways, it’s what’s called enabling. It’s the general tendency to give people what they want because you can’t bear to see them suffering. Basically, you’re not giving them what they need. You’re trying to get away from your feeling of I can’t bear to see them suffering. In other words, you’re doing it for yourself. You’re not really doing it for them.”

(Source: http://www.shambhala.org/teachers/pema/qa5.php)

As this relates to my own life, I find that I am far too willing to give my time, energy, and emotional output to those people in the bipolar community (and beyond) who are suffering because I can not bear the idea of permanent turmoil in another human being. I do this without appropriate time limits, respect for my personal needs, and without specific training to adequately assist many people with issues relating to our mutual disorder. I am an R.N. not a therapist, and my perspective is derived from my own suffering and experience with bipolar. While that skill set is real, it has limitations, which need to be respected.

That is not to say that communication with like-minded people, nor my heart-felt desire to positively impact them, is all for waste. It is not. But it does need to come with a healthy respect for my own life and utilizing the skills I do possess. It is reasonable to attempt to impact this demographic through writing and medical research, personal recounting, and reflecting on other people’s experiences. That is how I intend to make an impact moving forward.

That said, when I’m answering my 65th personal email (instead of writing articles), still in my pajamas at midnight, unfed, unwashed, and yet still eager to help – this is idiot compassion. Again, It is because I can not bear to see the suffering before me, and I only wish to impact positive change for others. While this can be categorized as loving, it is highly misguided as well, and serving my own need to see the “end of suffering” which is a rather arrogant notion devoid of the recognition that suffering will persist. It serves my own ego to some extent and it is profoundly wishful.

All supporters of those who have bipolar need boundaries, so we may be present for others when they require it, without causing damage to ourselves. As bipolar people it is especially important that we respect our personal needs as much as possible, before committing to helping another person equally afflicted.

We must maintain routines, adhere to our personal treatment protocol, allow time for introvert and extroverts alike to recharge, consume nutritious food, and create environments of peace and order. I find this to be imperative to maintaining wellness. It is absolutely crucial.

I often think the grandiose tendencies that bipolar is associated with, has made me blind to boundaries in general. In some sense this is a gift, as I can imagine lofty goals, and often come close to obtaining them. Occasionally, I can actually accomplish that which I set in motion simply because I do not register the potential for defeat. Of course, I have also tasted utter failure, which can be a natural bi-product of trying.

As it relates to compassion, my hope for us all, is that we are able to balance our true needs (to take extra care of our sensitive spirits and minds) with our desire to make a measurable impact in the world, based on our individual goals.

Also, it must be said that when relating to people with bipolar, telling them to “get help” might be the most sincere form of compassion you can offer them, although that may leave you feeling helpless and useless, it is in fact the best advice (regardless of the reception) that you can offer at times.

This is my goal: Be caring, intelligent, and impactful, while also recognizing my own aptitude and self-care in the process.

I hope that acting by this mantra will allow me to be more effective for those who connect with me. For those of you who have mastered this skill, I am amazed at your inner strength, and wise approach. I have so much left to learn.

** Up next… a series of articles explaining my view on treatment options. It’s time to get my glasses out and move into nerd mode. I can’t wait.

Woman with laptop image available from Shutterstock.



Bipolar But Whole

By Sarah Ryan

I have a deep interest in discussing treatment options and lifestyle choices aimed at minimizing the affects that bipolar has with regards to my life, and the lives of others. I have collected mountains of disorganized notes, on a variety of topics, including an extensive inventory of web-links to published medical studies, and personal accounts. There is so much to discuss, and ponder on. This is a vast beast of a subject, and I’m delighted to be gaining further insight into the realities of bipolar.

Before I can delve into specifics, and believe me, I will, I find it is important to consider the being moving through this information and period of growth. That being happens to be me, but it is my hope that my readers feel as though they could stand inside my shoes, and relate on an intimate level. You could easily be me, and I you. We are connected through commonality.

As I look through this collection of information that I have gathered, I’m struck by a theme. It is apparent that bipolar people are visually presented as having “halves” when described and depicted in the media. We are seen as either up, or down, positively charged, or negatively consumed. Obviously, it is the nature of the disorder to magnify these states of experience, and I don’t dispute that it is at times quite dramatic.

But, what if we saw ourselves as whole, and not fractured into competing parts?

For me, I am Sarah – at all times. My core values, personality, identity, and spirit remain intact in all states of experience and influence. Therefore, I am a singular being living through different states of perception, but I am a whole being. I am ruled by love, strength, and compassion at all times. The only difference is perhaps my ability to express that when being persuaded by the forces of bipolar. That lack, or over exertion, of expression doesn’t mean that my core sense of self has changed.

I find it detrimental to perceive ourselves as parted into competing pieces. It doesn’t speak to the truth of living or the human spirit.

If I am manic, I experience and perceive life differently from those around me. If I am depressed (a far more sinister state in my eyes) I am unable to perceive much around me, which again is contrary to the experience of those sharing the moment. This is why people often don’t understand someone with bipolar. You’re senses are detecting different realities when compared to someone who is living with this disorder.

While mania and depression are states of perception, I am still encapsulated as one soulful organism!

Someone without bipolar disorder would be far more likely to identify as having “lived through experiences” that were both positive and negatively impacting. We can all share that as a common reality associated with having a pulse. They would also probably find the notion of having “halves” as rather ludicrous.

I am including a screen-capture of an article CNN.com published. This image has been used countless numbers of times, and I really abhor it.  It says nothing to me about my experiences with bipolar, or living in general. (Source: http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/03/07/US.highest.bipolar.rates/)

cnn-article-image

My questions are, how did we come to be represented in media in this way? And, do others relate to this notion that you are severed into rival bits? There is no wrong way for you to envision yourself, at least to me, but I can’t identify with these images or this idea — at all.

I should hope that those who love me (and I am so wildly grateful to be able to count them on two hands) see me as one complete being with an intact notion of who I “am.”  I am hilarious (is this thing on?), inquisitive, passionate, loving, and generous. I am also stubborn, driven, opinionated, and obsessive. All of these outward traits make up one person, and that’s this girl. I can’t be separated from any of it.

It is important to me to visualize myself as complete and unique. It’s integral to my approach towards lasting wellness, and acceptance of self. I suppose I should also mention that this concept is the reason why my blog is called, “Bipolar Unbroken.”



 
 

Subscribe to this Blog:
Feed


Or Get a Single, Daily Email (enter email address):

via FeedBurner



Most Popular Posts
Recent Comments
  • heart2heart: My 36 year old son said it best,” Mom, I am tired of people labeling you, you are who you are and...
  • Laura: My son needs urgent psychiatric help. He is bipolar and does not have insurance right now (long story). A...
  • Bipolarxforever: That was so well said. Bravo for saying it and bravo for the gusto you bring to your family. I had...
  • Vincent F. Caimano, Ph.D.: Hello Sarah, I would be happy to share the studies. Unfortunately of the three I have to...
  • El: Hi there, Great post! Perfect timing too, as someone just gave me a light therapy “box” for Christmas...
Find a Therapist
Enter ZIP or postal code



Users Online: 12240
Join Us Now!